Good morning. We’re going through a special Christmas series called “Christmas for Real People.” We’re trying to look at some of the main characters of the Christmas story two thousand years ago and ask, “Who were they as real people? What do we know about them? And what can we learn from our lives?”
I don’t know if you can relate to this, but there are quite a few stories in my family that have been so exaggerated over time that it’s hard to know what actually happened. When I was little, my mother would occasionally take us out to Mother’s Pizza for their $1.99 all-you-can-eat spaghetti nights. Does anybody remember that special? Our family is one of the reasons why Mother’s Pizza is no longer in business. We used to go – the five of us – and we would end up with five orders of that special. Over time, the stories changed so that the five of us would go, my mother would order a plate of spaghetti and five forks, and a glass of water with five straws, and all of us would eat for $1.99. Stories get distorted over the years.
Today we’re going to look at a group of people who are an important part of the Christmas story. The only problem is that the stories and myths surrounding these people have grown so it’s very difficult to understand a lot about them. They’re called the Wise Men or, as I’m going to call them, the magi.
If you grew up in a church, you’ve automatically got this picture of three kings from the Orient bearing gifts, walking a little stooped over with three camels, following this star which eventually stops over a manger on Christmas morning, and they go in and find baby Jesus lying in the manger wrapped in swaddling cloths.
The problem is, almost none of that is accurate. There are few stories in the Bible that are clouded with as much myth and tradition as this one. This week as I read this passage, it was amazing to me how much confusion and mystery has grown around who these people were and what happened. I think it’s safe to say that there are more opinions about this passage than almost any other passage in the Bible. And there are not only opinions, but there are songs like We Three Kings, and nativity scenes and Christmas cards that have shaped our opinions. I want to help peal back some of the confusion today and try to figure out what really happened, and what it means for our lives today.
Let’s begin by looking at the story, which is found in Matthew 2. In fact, I’d like to read you the story, and then to begin to destroy some of the myths that have grown around these mysterious magi.
Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We have seen his star as it arose, and we have come to worship him.”
Herod was deeply disturbed by their question, as was all of Jerusalem. [If you were here last week, you’ll understand that when Herod got upset, everybody got upset.] He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law. “Where did the prophets say the Messiah would be born?” he asked them.
“In Bethlehem,” they said, “for this is what the prophet wrote:
‘O Bethlehem of Judah,
you are not just a lowly village in Judah,
for a ruler will come from you
who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.'”
Then Herod sent a private message to the wise men, asking them to come see him. At this meeting he learned the exact time when they first saw the star. Then he told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!”
After this interview the wise men went their way. Once again the star appeared to them, guiding them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! They entered the house where the child and his mother, Mary, were, and they fell down before him and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But when it was time to leave, they went home another way, because God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod. (Matthew 2:1-12)
Now you’ve read the story, let me give you a little quiz to see how you do. This is an open-book exam, so go ahead and look to find out the answers:
1. How many scholars or magi were there?
2. What did these scholars or magi do for a living?
3. What did they follow to find Jesus?
4. When did they arrive to worship Jesus?
Okay, let’s see how you did.
FIRST, how many scholars or magi were there? How many people answered three? The answer: we just don’t know. The Bible tells us there were more than one. It says “some wise men.” But it doesn’t tell us how many. Some people think that there were three because they presented three gifts. Other traditions say that there were two, four, even twelve magi. Some traditions have even given them names, and one church claims to have their skulls. But we just don’t know how many magi there were.
The good news is that if you have a nativity scene at home, and your kid breaks one of your Wise Men, it’s okay. You can just say that you belong to the tradition that only has two of them. It’s a very comforting fact.
SECOND: what did these magi do for a living? How many people said they were kings? The first recorded reference to these men as kings took place two hundred years after the event actually took place. Why would anybody guess that they were kings? Two reasons. First, they were rich enough to afford very expensive gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But the second reason is that the Bible prophesied that kings would come and worship Jesus. But there’s no indication in this passage that they were kings. They’re identified as being magi, a word that we could probably translate as astrologer. They were probably Persian priest-astrologers.
Astrology was a widely respected science in those times in the Roman world. Studies show that the astrologers of that day had an astonishing knowledge of astronomy. Magi at that time were physician-astrologers who healed the sick, interpreted dreams, and cast horoscopes.
Even though the Jewish faith was against astrology, many people of that day, including some Jews, put stock in astrological predictions. That’s why when these magi communicated news of a king’s birth to Herod, it was taken seriously. Constellations and comets and alignments all meant something. They signified the birth of a great Caesar, what type of life that Caesar would live, potential disasters that were about to take place, and so on. These magi had a very scientific knowledge of astronomy, and they applied that into the field of astrology. We’re going to see why this is important in a few minutes.
QUESTION THREE: what did they follow to find Jesus? How many people said star? How many people said something else – a comet, a supernova, a planet, or just a miracle? The verse I read called it a star. There are a lot of theories that people have developed to explain what it is. So the answer to this question is that we don’t know – although I do want to describe to you a very compelling theory in just a few minutes.
Numbers 24:17: “A star will rise from Jacob; a scepter will emerge from Israel.” We don’t know if the magi knew this verse, but we do know that Matthew knew this verse. No matter what the star was – and I have my theory – it’s presented as a supernatural act of God to reveal the birth of his Son. You could say, no matter what theory you hold, that the appearance of this star was a miracle.
FOUR: When did they arrive to worship Jesus? How many people said Christmas morning? You’re not sure if it’s before or after the shepherds arrived, but it was sometime on Christmas morning. This could be good news for you if your child destroys all the wise men in your nativity set, b ecause the magi were never at the inn with the baby Jesus. Matthew 2:11 says that they entered a house where Mary, Joseph, and Jesus lived. By this time, Mary and Joseph were married, living in a house, and intending to stay in Bethlehem for a while. Jesus was probably one or two years old by the time the magi found him. He may have been walking by then. That explains why Herod killed all the boys up to the age of two. Jesus was much older than a newborn baby by this time.
How did you do on this quiz? How many people have to go home and fix their nativity scenes now? It’s a challenge to see past all the legends to see what actually took place two thousand years ago.
Out of all the research I did this week, one potential explanation for this remarkable story seemed to make the most sense. There’s a danger in sharing it with you. A lot of us grew up with a very scientific, logical approach to life. If we couldn’t explain something logically, then we couldn’t believe it. The theory I’m about to give you is very logical, but in one way that doesn’t matter. I don’t think we should get stuck on logically explaining every detail of this story. But on the other hand, this theory is very helpful in filling in some of the details and helping us to understand what we can learn from the magi. I love this theory because it’s a theory that isn’t based on a modern understanding of what happened. It’s based on the beliefs that astronomers at that time held, discovered in ancient documents from that time.
On April 17, 6 BCE, a remarkable event took place in astronomy. On that day, the moon passed in front of Jupiter in the constellation Aries. I can tell by the blank look on your face that that means very little to you. Jupiter is named after the supreme deity of the ancient Romans, so Jupiter would have signified king. Aries the Ram was the zodiac symbol for the ancient kingdom of Judea. On that day, the sun, moon, and Saturn were all nearby, all within the sign of Aries the Ram. All of these would have been recognized by astronomers of that day as indicating the birth of an incredibly great king.
Another event also happened in the heavens that year. On December 19, 6 BCE, Jupiter underwent what’s called a retrograde action. It’s an optical illusion created by the orbit of the planets. As the earth’s orbit catches up to another planet, such as Jupiter, the planet’s movement across the sky appears to slow and stop.
So here’s what may have happened. The astrologers of that day recognized were continually looking to the skies to signify great events or disasters that were taking place. Ancient stargazers described in detail the celestial conditions for the births of kings and emperors. On a particular day, a planetary arrangement took place that could show only one thing: the birth of a great king in Judah. His signs were recognized as greater than the signs of the greatest king of that time, Caesar Augustus. They understood this sign, as did Herod, because they understood Greek astrology. As they approached Bethlehem, Jupiter underwent a retrograde action, which made it look like it went and stood over where Jesus was. (The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi by Michael R. Molnar).
So you have two groups of people. On one hand, you’ve got all the religious leaders of the day. Matthew 2:7 says the “leading priests and teachers of religious law” got together to study where the Messiah was born. You’ve got all the good guys – those with a direct connection with God. This group included the current and past high priests – a position that would rotate every year. This was the guy who went in to the most sacred part of the Temple, the Holy of Holies, once a year on the Day of Atonement to represent the entire nation before God. He was also head of the supreme court of the Jewish nation. He’s there, with all the other people who held that position before him, along with the leading Bible scholars of the time. These people knew the Bible inside out. They were even able to discover with precision where the Messiah was to be born. These were the good guys.
Then you’ve got this group of foreign astrologers. Their practices are condemned in Scriptures. They’re probably not even from the Jewish race, and their entire profession is a dishonorable one.
You’ve got these two groups of people – the religious leaders who are just five miles away from where Jesus was born, and the magi who are from hundreds of miles away. And which group does God choose to come and worship his Son, whom he had just sent to earth? He picked the astrologers. He bypassed the religious leaders of the day and went for the astrologers.
There are a lot of messages in this passage for us. We could focus on the worship that is due to Jesus as king. We could focus on the reactions of the different groups. But this passage was written to a Jewish audience. It was written to a group of people who would have a very hard time believing that God would speak to astrologers. They would have a very hard time believing that God would choose that kind of person to come and worship his Son.
What type of person is God looking for to worship him? The picture that many of us carry is the type of person who belongs in church. You know the kind. There are some people that you just don’t look like God’s type. Do you know who I mean? I’ve got a mental list of people who just don’t look like they’d be of much use to God. If you’re honest, you’ve probably got a list too. I want to spend just a few minutes talking to two groups of people, to see if we can really take this home.
I WANT TO TALK FIRST TO THOSE OF US WHO LOOK LIKE WE BELONG IN CHURCH. You know who you are. You don’t have too many tattoos, the only part of your body that’s pierced is your ears, and then only if you’re female; you probably brought a Bible with you, you can quote John 3:16, and you admit you’re a sinner because one time you didn’t come to a complete stop at a stop sign. This story is written for us to help us think outside the box – to help us realize that God’s plan might include more people than us. It’s written to help us understand that maybe God is planning to love and to reach people who don’t look like us, who don’t feel like they belong, who don’t really fit the picture of a person who would follow Jesus.
I’m a little bit scared by the fact that it’s the religious people who seemed to have missed most of what Jesus had to offer. There’s only one group of people that really didn’t get along with Jesus. It was the religious crowd. This was the only group of people that Jesus treated harshly.
But there was another group of people that Jesus loved. There were the scam artists of the day – the tax collectors. There were the immoral women, the prostitutes. There were obviously a few drinkers around, because Jesus was called a drunkard because of his association with them. Jesus loved to hang around people that the religious crowd had written off. Listen to what they said about Jesus: “‘He’s a glutton and a drunkard, and a friend of the worst sort of sinners!” (Matthew 11:19). Is it possible that God isn’t as impressed with how we appear churchy and religious, as much as we think? Is it possible that we’re actually at danger of missing out on real worship? Of not joining what he’s doing, because he uses different people than we would pick?
The lesson for those of us who look like we belong in church is this: LOOK AT PEOPLE LIKE GOD DOES. Let me put it differently. Who are the astrologers in your life? Who are the people that you’re pretty sure God won’t reach, that God won’t invite? Somebody who’s engaged in behavior that you know God won’t approve of – immoral behavior that you certainly wouldn’t condone. Is it possible that God sees them differently? Is it possible that those in our lives wh o are into the party scene, whose bodies are more tattooed than a wall mural, who have holes in their body where no holes belong, who act in ways we can’t appreciate – is it possible that God wants to rock our world by choosing these people to love? Is it possible that we have to look at them differently?
The astrologers brought Jesus gifts – precious gifts, which was the custom of that day when you approached a superior. The other custom of the day is that the gifts would be reciprocated. Matthew 2 never mentions that the gold, frankincense, and myrrh were reciprocated in any way. But some scholars say that the gifts from these gentiles were reciprocated at the very end of Matthew, the last two verses, in which Jesus says: “Go and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19). It’s possible, according to some scholars, that Matthew wants us to see this as the gift that Jesus wanted to return to those who weren’t Jewish, who weren’t religious, who didn’t belong. The gift Jesus returned is this: they get to be forgiven too. They get to receive the gift that Jesus came to offer. It’s no longer just for the religious group, the in-people. It’s for everyone.
The fact that most of us aren’t Jewish means that we’ve received the gift that was reciprocated to the magi. They offered their worship to Jesus. And Jesus has offered to us his reciprocated gift: the chance to be accepted by him, even though we don’t belong.
So look at other people differently. Don’t write them off. Don’t look down on them. See them the way Jesus would, even if they do things differently than we think God likes.
I want to speak for a second to the other group, THE GROUP THAT FEELS LIKE WE DON’T BELONG. You really don’t feel like you belong in church. You maybe feel like your friends would kill themselves if they knew you were in church. You may even be here because your spouse drags you here, or because you have a friend. You may be the most reluctant person who came through the doors this morning.
The message of the story for you is this: YOU BELONG MORE THAN YOU THINK. When God decided to throw a welcoming party for his Son, he chose only a few people to attend. He chose an unmarried couple in their teens to attend as the parents. He chose some shepherds – probably teenagers working a job about as prestigious as working at McDonalds. And he chose some astrologers. He bypassed the people we would have chosen, and invited the people that, at least by our standards, didn’t really belong.
So you belong. God loves you more than you could ever imagine. Ephesians 2:1 says, “Once you were dead, doomed forever because of your many sins.” You may relate to that verse. A lot of us are or were at the very end of ourselves. We did things. We made mistakes. We realized that we had not only damaged ourselves and the people around us, but we had actually died spiritually. And the Bible says that we were separated from God and doomed forever.
“But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so very much, that even while we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead” (Ephesians 2:4). Even if you feel you don’t belong, God is rich in mercy. He loves you very much. He wants you to have new life and forgiveness, not because of anything you’ve done, but because that’s why Jesus came.
Jesus came for people who don’t belong. He came for people who weren’t good enough. He came for people who wanted to be forgiven. He came to take their punishment, to die for them, to give them a fresh start and complete forgiveness. And you can receive this gift by responding in repentance – turning away from your sins; and faith – believing that Jesus came to live, die, and rise again for you.
You belong. You’re the reason that Jesus came. And you can come to worship him today.
Father, forgive us for the times that we look down on people, because of how they look or what they do or how they act. Help us to look at people as you see them. Help us to realize that your love extends to everybody. Help us to see them the way that you see them.
If you want to receive what Jesus came to bring – if you want to receive the gift of eternal life, then would you pray these words with me.
Father, I know that I’m a sinner. I know that as a result of that sin I was doomed forever. But Jesus came to die to forgive me from my sins, and to forgive me. Today I turn away from my sins and place my faith in Jesus. I receive the promise of forgiveness and eternal life. Thank you that I belong. In Jesus’ name, Amen.